The power plant at Ocotillo is one in a long line of utility-scale wind and solar projects made possible by the new 117-mile transmission line leading from Coastal California into the Imperial Valley.
A federal tax credit that expires at the end of the year hastened construction of the wind plant, which is just over an hourâ€™s drive from the California coast. The credit can offset as much as one-third of development costs.
â€œThis project is a viable project even without (the tax credit), but we are working to maximize our benefits,â€ said Joan Inlow, construction project manager for Bay Area-based wind developer Pattern Energy.
Pattern expects to have at least 86 turbines out of 112 at Ocotillo generating power this week. Spread across 19 square miles of desert leased by the Bureau of Land Management, the turbines nearly encircle Ocotillo, a town of fewer than 300 year-round occupants.
Many here objected to sacrificing desert vistas and a sense of solitude to the project, also fearing the repercussions for wildlife. Several lawsuits have failed to halt the turbines, as construction workers poured into Ocotilloâ€™s trailer parks and rental units with the start of construction in May.
Jim Pelley, whose home borders the power plant, feels the town was deceived.
â€œI think there are more people now who are surprised and say, â€˜Oh, I had no idea that they would be so huge,â€™â€‰â€ he said.
Kathleen Thayer, a 59-year-old Ocotillo resident and off-and-on real estate agent, said the visual transformation is dramatic, but insists few people are looking back.
â€œTheyâ€™re awesome. They just change the landscape,â€ said Thayer, who gratefully took a temporary office job with the main construction contractor. â€œThe comment I hear most of the time is that itâ€™s progress. Itâ€™s green energy and weâ€™d much rather have that than something thatâ€™s not green.â€
Interstate 8, on its way from San Diego to Yuma, provides a panoramic view of the Ocotillo turbines. Up close, the towers dwarf trucks, railroad and even the high lattices for transmission lines that run past Ocotillo. Rotor blades soar 440 feet into the air.
The turbines were purchased from the German industrial group Siemens, but the major components were manufactured in the U.S. The blades were delivered by rail to El Centro from manufacturing facilities in Iowa, and the nacelles, a generator and gearbox enclosure at the rotor hub, from Kansas.
At full tilt, Ocotillo Wind has the capacity to produce 265 megawatts of electricity, enough to power as many as 125,000 homes. Thatâ€™s about one-fourth the output of one reactor at either of Californiaâ€™s nuclear plants.
The price of the power, under a 20-year contract with San Diego Gas & Electric, has not been disclosed publicly, under state regulations designed to protect competition. (San Diego U-T, 12-1-2012)